Gay hiking

A 550 mile mega hiking trail arrives in the Bay Area. “It will be like the Appalachian Trail”

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On a foggy June morning, Ross Heitkamp walked with friends north across the Golden Gate Bridge, wrapping up a two-year project to hike every available section of the 393-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail.

“We live in this very populated urban area, and you only have to drive a little bit to get to this amazing hiking trail,” Heitkamp said. Some sections trace city streets and cross bridges, but most of the route winds through the hills surrounding the bay. “Sometimes it’s in a completely remote wilderness area 20 minutes from where you live,” Heitkamp said.

Local outdoor enthusiasts have long dreamed of a contiguous hiking trail that runs the length of the region, connecting the ridges around San Francisco and San Pablo bays. And while only about 70% of the proposed full 550-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail is complete, there’s enough trail in place to spark the imagination of explorers like Heitkamp, ​​who are already hiking. hike and bike as much as they can.

“One day it will be like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, where people can camp more” and engage in real hiking through the region, said Bob Siegel, board member of the Bay Area. Ridge Trail. Council, the non-profit group working to complete the route.

People walk along the Bay Area Ridge Trail through Penitencia Creek County Park in San Jose.

Bronte Wittpenn/The Chronicle

The trail was first proposed in the 1980s by William Penn Mott Jr., who then ran public land agencies in the East Bay for 40 years and later headed the National Park Service. Among other ideas, Mott wanted to create a “super park system” based on a network of trails that would criss-cross the Bay Area and connect the region by trails up to the Sierra ridge.

In a metropolitan area now home to nearly 8 million people, stringing together a giant trekking circuit through nine counties is easier said than done. The trail board has coordinated with over 70 different land management groups, as well as local governments and individual landowners.

Over the past year, the council has secured new rooms in San Jose, near Skyline Boulevard in San Mateo County and a mile in the hills above Napa Valley. By the end of the year, the council plans to lock down a total of 400 miles.

“The big question now is, how are we going to end it?” said Janet McBride, executive director of the trails board.

A bird’s eye view shows a loop fractured into about 80 pieces, with an unbroken stretch connecting the Santa Cruz Mountains to Mount Tam via the Golden Gate Bridge as well as a 45-mile stage retracing the East Bay Hills.

The hills of the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve can be seen from part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail at Penitencia Creek Park in San Jose, Calif., Monday, July 26, 2021. The trail is 550 miles of proposed route which would bypass the nine-county area.  It is approaching 400 miles of track completed after 30 years of work.

The hills of the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve can be seen from part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail at Penitencia Creek Park in San Jose, Calif., Monday, July 26, 2021. The trail is 550 miles of proposed route which would bypass the nine-county area. It is approaching 400 miles of track completed after 30 years of work.

Bronte Wittpenn/The Chronicle

But small voids interrupt the trail and large chunks are missing in Napa and Santa Clara counties. Last year the council conducted a ‘gap analysis’, identifying 152 breaks in the proposed route.

The vast majority of the established trail – 92% to be exact – passes through parks, open spaces, and other public lands where obtaining approvals for a hiking trail is relatively straightforward. But of the remaining 150 miles, nearly half would pass through private land.

“What remains, overall, are the most complicated, difficult, expensive and tricky sections, McBride said.

Pieces that pass through historic ranches, for example, where landowners might not be too fond of strangers wandering around uninvited and unsupervised. In some places, private landowners and land trusts have agreed to allow hikes under the supervision of a docent or licensed hiking guide.

“Sometimes you can go around the edge” of a private plot, McBride said. But bridging the smaller gaps is “largely a challenge still ahead of us”.

Napa, the county with the fewest completed trails, has only had an open space district dedicated to protecting and managing public lands since 2006. The trail board revised the route seven years ago, but it is always difficult. Imagine trying to carve a path through Wine Country, where quality open space is scarce and land can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre.

A stone sign dedicated to the Ohlone Tribes, the original inhabitants of the Bay Area, can be seen at Upper Penitencia Creek Contemplative Garden on the Bay Area Ridge Trail in San Jose, Calif., Monday, July 26, 2021. The trail is 550- miles of proposed road that would bypass the nine county area.  It is approaching 400 miles of track completed after 30 years of work.

A stone sign dedicated to the Ohlone Tribes, the original inhabitants of the Bay Area, can be seen at Upper Penitencia Creek Contemplative Garden on the Bay Area Ridge Trail in San Jose, Calif., Monday, July 26, 2021. The trail is 550- miles of proposed road that would bypass the nine county area. It is approaching 400 miles of track completed after 30 years of work.

Bronte Wittpenn/The Chronicle

Much of the proposed Santa Clara route would also pass through private property. An “inner loop” that runs through the middle of San Jose is nearly complete. But a more attractive scenic route that would connect county parks along the ridges surrounding Morgan Hill and Gilroy is still a long way off, McBride said, in part because of a regional effort to create wildlife corridors in the area.

Crossing highways and freeways presents another challenge. For example, Highway 17 currently branches off a piece that planners hope to lock through Los Gatos. There are talks of building a wildlife crossing that could accommodate hikers as well.

Even with all the breaks, the current trail has its charms.

It is loaded with panoramic views of the bay. Service tracks on public land provide easy access to the main spur all the way. Many sections are open to hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders. Portions in Orinda, Castro Valley and San Jose are easily accessible from BART stations. The path through San Francisco takes hikers up Mount Sutro and then past cafes on the way north to the Golden Gate.

Reflecting on his circumnavigation, Heitkamp said one of the best things about the track is its variety.

“It’s a sampling platter of the entire Bay Area,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to enjoy those areas that you might not normally visit.”

When it comes to the one-day ridge trail matching the world-famous Pacific Crest and Appalachian wilderness trails, which attract thousands of backpackers each year, Heitkamp sees the potential.

“I felt like I missed an opportunity to do it with a backpack in the East Bay,” he said. “I would like to go back there.”

For free downloadable maps of the entire trail, visit www.RidgeTrail.org/trail-maps.

Gregory Thomas is the Lifestyle and Outdoors Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @GregRThomas